February 18, 2016 — AT&T has joined Verizon in testing the technologies that will be pillars of 5G — network function virtualization (NFV) and software-defined networking (SDN) – collaborating with Ericsson and Intel in the lab and outdoors and eventually in field trials in Austin, Texas, by the end of the year.
“These are the very first foundational steps toward 5G. NFV and SDN have to be there to set the table for 5G,” said Jake MacLeod, Gray Beards Consulting. “They are getting the network prepared for 5G. It will enhance the existing network, increasing speeds and reducing latency. But it’s not 5G.”
AT&T’s announcement follows the launch of the inaugural Verizon 5G Technology Forum last August, which brought together a more expansive group of OEMs, including Alcatel-Lucent, Cisco, Ericsson, Nokia, Qualcomm, Samsung and Intel, which joining them later. The forum will set up 5G network environments, or “sandboxes,” in Verizon’s Waltham, Massachusetts, and San Francisco Innovation Centers.
5G is a big part of this year’s Mobile World Congress pre-buzz from OEMs such as Nokia, which promised demonstrations of 5G-enabled autonomous cars, industrial networking, interactive virtual reality and other applications with “massive bandwidth capacity and virtual zero latency.” Not to mention a demo send data with speeds of 30 Gbps to an end user, and >1MM simultaneous connections in a single cell. But there is a long road of technology testing and trialing and industry standards work that must take place.
Moving Forward with Network Virtualization
AT&T’s 5G roadmap announcement is not a surprise. Its labs have been working on NFV and SDN — key ingredients of 5G – for years. In 2014, it announced plans to virtualize 75 percent of its network by 2020. It virtualized 5.7 percent in 2015, covering 14 million wireless customers, and expects to hit 30 percent in 2016.
“In the last few years, AT&T has been rethinking how companies should design and build their networks, according to an AT&T spokesman. “The traditional model relied on complex and cumbersome hardware. But that gear takes too long to deploy and too long to upgrade in the face of the customer demand the industry is experiencing. The future is software and our transformation is already underway.”
Building the 5G Standard
OEMs are currently building to the Third Generation Partnership Project’s (3GPP) Release 12 of the 4G standard, and Release 13 of the standard is expected in March of this year. Additionally, 3GPP’s 5G standard, which will spec out the wave form of the next generation of radios, is not expected to become a reality until 2020.
AT&T hopes that these trials to help the industry form its 5G standard, as well as setting the “stage for commercial availability” once 5G standards are set.
“We’re conducting our 5G trials in such a way that we’ll be able to pivot to compliant commercial deployments once 5G technology standards are set,” said John Donovan, chief strategy officer and group president, AT&T Technology and Operations. “The international standards body, 3GPP, will likely complete the first phase of that process in 2018. Meanwhile, we continue to evolve our 4G network to deliver higher capacity and the best experience for our customers.”